Sustainability: Is this the Plan?

Interview

Global warming, increasing CO2 levels, the water crisis, dying forests, disappearing wildlife species, climate anxiety. These are critical topics of our era, and like it or not, we all must learn how to live with them.

Op-ed by Péter Boros

So, we selectively collect and recycle waste, reduce our usage of plastics and water, use more community transportation, bicycles, shared cars in the city and so on. In the business communities, most enterprises now run CSR programs (that preferably involve all their employees), plant trees, work in greener offices, help their immediate environment be more sustainable overall.

They optimize their production and sales processes. They become more cost-effective with business travel, holding online meetings rather than flying to London, Paris, or New York weekly on private jets. All of this to decrease or even eliminate their carbon footprint.

These economy-conscious activities are an important – and, indeed, vital – part of how we relate to our future environment. But are we looking at this topic from the proper angle?

Do we truly understand the essence of this issue, the effect of our human species on our environment? How on Earth is it possible that we are still not fully aware of this problem after numerous years of heavy communication and discussions worldwide? Why is environmental consciousness still not a core, essential part of our way of life woven into everything we do?

I think, somehow, we miss the “Big Picture” as such. We view our solutions as a mix of separate tasks rather than inseparable elements of the same system. We all seem to agree that utilizing wind energy is a sustainable, environmentally friendly way of generating electricity. Or that driving a fully electric car is not only cool but a super energy-conscious thing to do.

However, to pick one aspect, we don’t talk much about the wind turbine itself, only 60-70% of which can be recycled level at the end of its lifecycle. Nor about the manufacturing process of the cars, that puts an enormous burden on the environment.

Although they come up in conversations occasionally, these contraindications don’t get much publicity outside of the corresponding industry, which weakens the public communication of green solutions in general.

We should keep aiming to use renewable and clean technologies, but we need to develop our processes constantly to improve the effectiveness and level of sustainability. We should plan and design our activities and products from a “holistic” approach, or as it is also known in the business world, from a helicopter view, creating genuinely long term, sustainable solutions.

(To be fair, some industry players are doing just that. They constantly update their applied technologies, research new materials and production processes, so I am knocking on an open door in a way.)

Apart from industry and individual approaches, or rather, additionally to that, our education system is not designed to teach how to tackle complex issues effectively. Several studies and firsthand experience shows that our school system still does not focus strongly enough on collaboration. Project and teamwork result in more effective overall solutions. This is especially applicable to general topics with global, international effects, like environmental protection.

Naturally, anything connected with education is a long-term process, hence it should start at a very young age. Involving the little ones is vital (and a lot of fun, for that matter). Programs like the “Draw A Tree” competition run by one of the major civil associations, for example, demonstrate why trees have such a vital role in our lives and why we need to keep planting more of them and awaken consciousness early. As a result, they will pay a lot more attention to their environment when they become business owners and leaders.

However, the education process should continue across the whole school system, even through the university to postgraduate level. Universities can play a significant role in the process in three ways: i) education, ii) research, and iii) as an operation.

On the education side, the role of business and society-focused institutions is fundamental in guiding students towards environmentally conscious, strategic solutions. Incorporating the topic of sustainability into their curriculum, either as a standalone subject or part of another course, effectively shapes their views. Designing homework tasks, projects, or a doctorate thesis around this subject can also effectively highlight the importance of environmental issues.

There are already excellent examples. At the Metropolitan University, some basic business subjects (business planning, brand management, destination and visitor management) are designed with this approach in mind, and we have great feedback from our students. At other institutions such as the University of Sopron, where business orientation and environmental issues are historically in focus, we can also find similar examples. More and more doctorate research goes into this field and yields excellent results at the academic and industrial levels.

Internationally, more prominent universities (primarily at campuses in the United States and Australia) can also serve as examples of sustainable communities. Students and even professors live within the walls of these campuses, so it operates as a little town, with several facilities available at the disposal of its inhabitants. As a result, the campus operation itself serves as a firsthand research base for those facilities, as their customers (the students) are living in the “research field.”

It seems we are moving in the right direction. With a more focused approach, more publicity, more discussion about this topic, looking at our environment as a very complex organism, we will develop viable, long-term solutions.

The author is a lecturer at Metropolitan University Budapest and the University of Sopron, Alexandre Lamfalussy Faculty of Economics.

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